Has the Use of Chemical Weapons Become A New Norm in International Relations?
Alastair Hay | Professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds
Not in my opinion. Syria is an aberration. Before Syria, the last large-scale use of chemical weapons was the Iraqi attacks against the Kurds in 1988, in which some 8,000 people died and many more were injured. It was another 25 years, in August 2013, before a nerve agent, Sarin, was used in Syria—killing over 1,400 people in the Ghouta, and in April 2017, killing perhaps over 100 people in Khan Sheikhoun. Unknown agents appear to have killed many people on April 7, 2018, in Douma. Sandwiched between these attacks were many more using chlorine.
Smaller-scale, but isolated, attacks with nerve agents have also taken place. Sarin was used to kill 20 people, while injuring hundreds, in Japan in 1994 and 1995. VX was used in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. And a Novichok-type agent was used in the attempted murder of the Skripals in the United Kingdom in March 2018. Most of Syria’s chemical weapons have been destroyed under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, but clearly not all. Worldwide, over 96 percent of declared chemical weapons have been destroyed, with 192 countries and much of the chemical industry supporting these moves. In the longer term the outlook is positive, even if current events suggest otherwise.
Natasha Lander | Senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation
The recent chemical attack in Douma was not an aberration. Despite concerted international efforts over the past several decades to ban chemical weapons, such weapons have been used in recent years by Syria, the Islamic State, North Korea, and even Russia. The lack of concrete measures to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks responsible creates a dangerous shift that treats chemical weapons as tacitly accepted weapons of war. The United States, many of its European allies, and the European Union have levied sanctions against Syrians and Russians in response to such attacks. Some have expelled Russian diplomats from their countries. The United Nations Security Council holds meetings in response to chemical weapons use, but meetings alone do not produce results.
Military options have been employed against Syria in retaliation for chemical attacks—as recently as April 14, 2018—but sustained military action may be politically unpalatable. At a minimum, likeminded allies must sustain public condemnation of such attacks and continue to levy sanctions. They should also consider releasing more information to disprove narratives put out by Russia that Syrian and Russian forays into chemical weapons use are false.
Alex Simon | Syria program director at Synaps, which mentors local analysts grappling with the social and economic changes faced by their societies
No, on the contrary, the latest U.S., British, and French military strikes in Syria showed that the taboo against the use of chemical weapons still carried enough symbolic weight to trigger a response by actors who had, otherwise, abandoned most pretense of caring about Syrians. It is remarkable, however, to note the degree to which this prohibition has lost the consensual, commonsensical support it enjoyed as of the 1990s. Today, a power as mainstream as Russia stops short of denouncing repeated chemical weapons use, opting instead for an incoherent mix of denials, false flag theories, and flimsy accusations against rebel groups.
This devaluation belongs to a broader post-2001 drift away from concepts that helped structure the late-20th century, as Western societies turn inward and a paranoid “war on terror” eats away at the notion of a rules-based international order. Norms such as the right to asylum and prohibitions on chemical weapons use and torture were never inviolate, but they at least enjoyed broad Western consensus. Today it is only moderately controversial that European nations turn back refugees facing death or enslavement in Africa. Washington bears considerable blame for this erosion, which George W. Bush helped catalyze, Barack Obama did nothing to arrest, and Donald Trump promises to accelerate.
Perry Cammack | Fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department under secretary of state John Kerry (2013–2105), where he worked on Middle East-related issues
With the pinprick strikes last week against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the number of countries using chemical weapons against their own citizens seems likely to decline, at least for the time being, from one to zero.
But this development is small relief for the 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar who have been driven with impunity from their homes in Rakhine State by the ruling junta, or the 1 million in Yemen suffering from cholera in the wake of civil war and a Saudi-led military intervention. So, too, for the citizens of restive areas of Syria, whose government will continue to kill them in far greater numbers with crude barrel bombs filled with gasoline and scrap metal. The reestablishment of prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons is in and of itself certainly welcome news. But it is hardly a cause for celebration in a world gone mad.